Activists Score Victory in Effort to Stop the Government Killing of Millions of Animals

A court ruling revives a case against a federal program that eradicates wildlife deemed a threat to farmers and ranchers.
(Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Aug 13, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Environmentalists fighting a federal program that routinely and, some say, indiscriminately slaughters millions of animals every year will get their day in court.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program ostensibly protects farmers by eliminating predators and other wildlife that could hurt crops or livestock. Some see it as an essential service; many conservationists, however, accuse the government of killing indiscriminately, using bad science, and not keeping adequate records.

The program reported killing more than 4 million animals in 2013, including 75,000 coyotes, 12,000 prairie dogs, nearly a thousand hawks, 866 bobcats, 528 river otters, and more than 400 bears.

Conservation groups are already suing the USDA in multiple states to compel more accountability for the agency’s actions. Now an old case that had been thrown out in Nevada is moving forward again after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that it does have merit.

A federal judge dismissed the original case after the USDA argued that the state of Nevada would step in to manage predator control if the federal program did not and thus the environmentalists’ claims were moot. The appeals court last week ruled that this is not a valid argument—and not just because Nevada has little history of wildlife removal and has stated in a letter to the court that it has no budget to replace Wildlife Services’ activities. “The ruling makes it clear that just because you were being injured potentially by more than one actor doesn’t mean you can’t seek redress for injuries by one actor,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, which filed the original suit and sought the appeal.

The court cited several previous Supreme Court opinions, including Massachusetts v. EPA, which stated the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon pollution in Massachusetts even though many states and nations besides the U.S. also contribute to global warming.

“This is a big deal,” said Cotton, who noted that the ruling could affect similar cases filed in other states in the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction.

Cotton says the lawsuit’s goal is to get Wildlife Services to adhere to the same types of environmental reviews that every other government agency is required to follow. The program relies on a 1994 environmental impact statement that is based on science from the 1980s and earlier.

“They’re supposed to do an analysis, publish a draft in the Federal Register, and have a public comment period,” Cotton said. “That’s an opportunity for us to say, ‘Have you seen the latest science?’ ”

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This is important because, Cotton said, “the science has changed significantly. Forty years ago people thought that if coyotes were causing problems the best thing you could do was go and kill them.”

The most recent science finds that indiscriminate killing of coyotes causes more of the animals to breed and populations to increase. “If you’re trying to keep coyote numbers down, the worst thing you can do is go kill indiscriminately.”

WildEarth Guardians also has issues with the program’s use of poisons, many of which are illegal unless administered by federal agencies. “These are extremely toxic poisons,” Cotton said. “There are lots of recorded incidents of dogs getting into it and dying.”